The Vegetable FruitBy Dennis Linden Rhubarb is an unusual word that is very fitting for an equally unusual vegetable
Rhubarb is an unusual word that is very fitting for an equally unusual vegetable. Unique is really an understated description for what is known, especially in the Midwest, as the “pie plant” because it shows up most on the American menu in a baked dessert. Not only is this vegetable a traditional pie filling in this country, in 1947 a New York court declared rhubarb a fruit legally. Lawyers argued successfully that this used-as-a-fruit culinary custom was reason enough to consider it a fruit, regardless of the botanical facts of the case. This ruling resulted in importers being able to circumvent a higher tariff tax accessed to vegetables over fruits. Conversely, Europe uses rhubarb as the veggie it is, predominantly in soups and stews, similar to celery. Don’t tell the judge!
Even the individual parts of the plant seem to contradict each other in use. The leaves are very toxic to humans, though the stalks can be turned into sweet desserts and for the last 5,000 years processed rhubarb root has occupied a spot in many Chinese medicine cabinets as a cure for irregularity.
Another antithesis of itself, the crop is grown commercially using two methods as different as night and day, literally; growing in full sunlight or complete darkness will both yield a crop! April is the time when harvests from both growing practices overlap, so watch for this distinct change-over in the appearance of the rhubarb display in your local retail produce department.
Hot house rhubarb from Washington State starts showing up at supermarkets in early January. For hot house growing, rhubarb stalks are put in soil in dark, heated rooms; because of this lack of sunlight, the leaves are pale yellow and quite stinted compared to chard-like green leaves of the field grown variety. Hot house rhubarb is also slightly thinner and touted to be a little sweeter, though a more accurate description is less sour. There is really nothing sweet about raw rhubarb stalks, which are extremely tart by nature no matter how they are grown.
Rhubarb, produced in a hot house, tends to keep its color through the cooking process and does have a milder flavor. Field grown rhubarb can turn a light brown when heated and has a much more assertive taste. Rhubarb stalks, called petioles, are almost always cooked―usually with a good amount of sugar in this country, like cranberries, to counter the naturally sour taste. Looking for a rhubarb recipe without all those empty sugar calories? Check out the two presented in this month’s Cookin’ with the Kids feature. BTW, it took me a few hours of reviewing foodie sites and blogs on the ‘net to even find these two sugarless dishes in this sweet country of ours; both turn out to be un-American, so to speak, having European or East Indian origins.
Again, do not eat these leaves as they contain oxalic acid that can stop a heart from beating. While one would have to eat more than 10 lbs. of leaves for there to be lethal effects, small amounts can cause quite a bit of discomfort. However, this toxicity can be used to a great advantage in the garden as an organic insecticide. Bring the leaves to a boil and then simmer for 20 minutes, strain liquid into a bucket, cool, pour the liquid into a spray bottle, add a teaspoon of liquid soap. A note of caution: Do not spray this liquid on food crops or use if you have a dog. Dogs are attracted to soap and can die from licking the potion. Still, spraying this liquid on flowers will kill any leaf-eating insect.
Another good household tip for this veggie: To clean a burnt pot, chop some rhubarb into small pieces and boil them in the pot until the black stains are lifted off the surface of the pot and then rinse them away! I just happened to have a burnt pot – must have been someone else cooking in my kitchen – so I tried it. I actually had already tossed the pot in the garbage, so I retrieved it for the test. It is now back in good standing form and hanging from my pot rack.
In researching this feature, I came across two very interesting and possibly related rhubarb factoids that have absolutely nothing to do with the plant but the word itself…
The word "rhubarb," meaning in baseball a fight or argument, is of recent origin. In 1938, a Brooklyn Dodger fan shot and killed a New York Giant fan in a barroom argument over baseball. A bartender described the incident to baseball writer Tom Meany as a "rhubarb," though no one is quite sure why.** Meany repeated the word in that context to Giants PR man Garry Schumacher. Dodger broadcaster Red Barber picked it up, after hearing both Meany and Schumacher, and began using the word frequently on his radio broadcasts of the Brooklyn Dodger baseball games. He had an immense listening audience and the word soon passed into the language.
**I think I found out "why" with more research, if one assumes that bartender was really a stereotypical starving NYC actor moonlighting but well-versed in stage theatrics...
A stage trick employed since 18th Century English productions was for actors playing members of a background crowd to repeat the word "rhubarb" over-and-over in muffled tones to replicate indistinguishable crowd conversation or to convey agitated commotion to the audience. Rhubarb-Rhubarb-Rhubarb!